Davos Agenda

Working and caring during UK lockdown: who bears the brunt?

Tired mother with daughter.

Lone mothers faced greater challenges in lockdown and more mental health issues. Image: Pexels.

Baowen Xue
Research Associate, Epidemiology & Public Health, University College London (UCL)
Anne McMunn
Professor of Social Epidemiology, University College London (UCL)
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit

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  • UK study of 40,000 individuals and families during the first 2020 lockdown, reveals the pandemic's impact on people's welfare.
  • Women were disproportionally affected, taking on more caring responsibilities than men, resulting in reduced or adjusted paid work.
  • We need a care-led recovery to protect women's mental health and redress domestic gender imbalances.

Globally, COVID-19 containment measures have resulted in the closure of many services, including schools, basic healthcare, and day-care facilities. More people are at home than ever due to pandemic-related measures and lockdowns, therefore, the need for housework and care has multiplied.

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More than 190 countries worldwide have implemented nationwide school closures in an attempt to prevent further contagion, impacting over 91%of world’s student population. Schools in the UK were first closed to most pupils as a pandemic control measure in March 2020 and again in January 2021 in response to the spread of COVID-19.

Much has been said about the setbacks to children’s learning and the challenges that have faced parents juggling homeschooling, childcare, housework and working from home during lockdown. Our research, using data collected during the early months of lockdown, shows that women spent considerably more time than men undertaking housework and childcare during lockdown and the knock on effect on working parents’ and lone mothers’ mental health.

Lockdown study

During April and May 2020, a number of participants from the 40,000 household study Understanding Society took part in a special ongoing COVID19 sub-study. They were asked a range of questions about how much time they spent each week doing housework and childcare/homeschooling. They were also asked whether they had had to adapt working patterns or reduce working hours due to childcare/homeschooling. They were also asked a range of questions to gauge the state of their mental health.

Gender inequality remains an issue

On average, the women in the study spent about 15 hours per week in April and May doing housework compared with men who spent 10 hours. When it came to caring for the children and doing homeschooling, women spent nearly twice as much time on this as men – 20.5 hours per week in April and May. For men, the figure was 12 hours per week for each month.

Because of the time spent doing childcare/homeschooling, one in six working mothers reduced their employment hours and one in three working mothers adapted their work patterns. Working fathers were five percentage points less likely to reduce working hours seven percentage points less likely to adapt work patterns due to childcare/homeschooling than working mothers.

Within couples, women undertook 64% of housework and 63% of childcare. Where parents were in a couple they tended not to reduce their working hours, although where this did occur it was more likely to be the mother than the father who made the adjustment to accommodate childcare or homeschooling (21% compared with 11%), and it was more likely to be the mother than the father who changed employment schedules (32% compared with 18%).

Effect on working parents’ mental health

Adapting work patterns was associated with mental distress for both working mothers and working fathers. Between couples, mental health was worse for the man/woman where he/she was the only one to adapt or reduce work hours for childcare. This suggests that fairness really matters in this context.

For lone mothers, having to change work patterns to juggle their job responsibilities with childcare and homeschooling, things were even tougher. They exhibited considerably more symptoms of poor mental health and this finding stayed strong even when we accounted for their mental health pre-lockdown.

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Long-term impact

Gender inequality in unpaid care work due to school closures may exacerbate persistent gender inequalities in the job market. Increased responsibilities at home during lockdown have made it even harder for lone mothers to continue working and this may have implications for their return to work or further hardship as they try to juggle uncertain times ahead. Research on the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic needs to be conducted again to determine how things have changed over time. Awareness of continued gender biases in divisions of labour and their impact on psychological health is important for both couples and employers going forward.

Help people get their lives back on track

All students in England could return to classrooms from March 2021. With children back at school, the load will have eased for some, but the stresses and worries of lockdown are by no means over. There are numerous reports of schools sending home whole classes of children to quarantine due to COVID-19 cases among teachers and pupils alike.

The Women’s Budget Group (WBG, a leading UK women's finance charity), together with a number of other leading voices in the gender equality debate, say a care-led recovery is what’s required in order to redistribute unpaid work between men and women more equally. Our research adds weight to the WBG calls for a care-led economy where policymakers and businesses recognize and address the extra burden and psychological stresses that have been faced by women.

In the longer term, there are valuable lessons to make sure support measures are put in place to ensure women are not impacted in this way again. More equal parental leave may help to shift gender imbalances in unpaid care work at home. This is another project we are currently working on, and our preliminary results show that fathers' leave-taking at birth is associated with fathers' higher levels of involvement in childcare in both the short and long-term.

At a global level, governments everywhere must recognize that the pandemic is derailing hard fought for improvements and that lone mothers, yet again, are suffering most. Action is needed now to help people get their lives back on track and keep the gender equality train moving forward.

The author is a member of the World Economic Forum Expert Network.

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Related topics:
Davos AgendaFuture of WorkGender InequalityAgeing and LongevityDiversity and Inclusion
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